Like “Faust,” too, the opera of Thomas was based on a creation of Goethe. Without the pathetic episode of “Mignon,” the novel of “Wilhelm Meister” would lose much of its dramatic strength and quality. Of course, every libretto must part with some of the charm of the story on which it is built; but in this instance the author succeeds in preserving nearly all the intrinsic worth of the Mignon episode. The music is admirably suited to a noble theme. There is hardly a weak bar in it from beginning to end; and some of the work here done by the composer will compare favorably with any operatic music ever hoard. In this opera melodic phrase goes hand in hand with character and motive, and Mignon, Philina, Wilhelm Meister, and Lothario, are distinguished in the music with the finest dramatic discrimination.
Among the operas of recent years, “Mignon” ranks among the first for its taste, grace, and poetry. The first act is vigorous, bright, and picturesque; the second, touched with the finest points of passion and humor; the third is inspired with a pathos and poetic ardor which lift the composer to do his most magnificent work. But to describe “Mignon” to the public of today, which has heard it almost an innumerable number of times, is, as much as in the case of Gounod’s “Faust,” “carrying coals to Newcastle.”
In 1868 Thomas produced “Hamlet,” and it was represented at the Grand Opera, with Mile. Christine Nilsson in the role of Ophelia, the same singer having, if we mistake not, created the role of Mignon. “Hamlet,” though a marked artistic success, has failed to make the same popular impression as “Mignon,” possibly because the theme is less suited to operatic treatment; for the music per se is of a fine type, and full of the genuine accents of passion.
In addition to the works named above, Ambroise Thomas has written “La Gypsy,” “Le Panier Fleuri,” “Carline,” “Le Roman d’Elvire,” several fine masses, many beautiful songs, a requiem, and miscellaneous church-pieces. Thomas is famous in France for the generous encouragement and help which he extends to all young musicians, assistance which his position in the Paris Conservatoire helps to make most valuable. He is now seventy-one years old, and, should he add nothing more to the musical treasures of the present generation, much of what he has already done will give him a permanent place in the temple of lyric music.